Twenty six years. Sixteen coaches. Ten general managers, including two-time Dale Tallon and a set of brothers, Bryan and Terry Murray.
There were five owners, not counting the group of eight investors briefly led by beloved Miami quarterback Bernie Kosar, who said hockey was his “first and special love” before disappearing into the biggest portfolio. by Alan Cohen.
Cohen passed out after four indifferent seasons, telling people he likes investing in horses more than hockey players because “they don’t respond.”
Cliff Viner bought the team. His lasting memory was a quick divorce in Key West where his ex-wife’s abandonment of any right to the Panthers was such a talking point that the Panthers released a statement about it.
Viner divorced the Panthers three years later.
Does this help anyone? Does this begin to explain why Friday was important? Does it evoke the long and tortured treadmill on which the Panthers have been skating for more than a quarter of a century?
At 10:43 p.m. Friday night, Carter Verhaeghe was in the Cavalry again, scoring in overtime as the Panthers beat Washington in a 4-3 thriller. This meant the Panthers had won a playoff series. It’s not a typo. They actually won a series. A ghost poofed.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s amazing,” said Aleksander Barkov, who is in his ninth season with the Panthers.
Dolphins fans lament not having won a playoff game since 2000. The Marlins haven’t won since 2003. That’s childish stuff compared to the Panthers and their 26 years between playoff advancements.
Here’s a story: Pavel Bure led the league with 58 goals in 1999-2000 and was benched in a playoff series where the Panthers were swept by New Jersey. Bench.
“Don’t ask me why,” he said then.
Here’s another story: Jaromir Jagr, who was knocked out of the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals by pesky Panthers like Tom Fitzgerald and Bill Lindsay, joined the Panthers two decades later. I once asked him about this series. He asked me for something in return.
“Is it true that they haven’t won anything since?” he said
We could continue with these stories. And on. Mike Keenan, as general manager, fired his coach, Duane Sutter, after just 26 games in the 2001 season, got behind the bench and later agreed to the terms of a new contract with the only player that this franchise needed: Roberto Luongo. Keenan then traded Luongo before the contract was signed.
Luongo was traded to the Panthers seven years later, part of a construction roster that made the playoffs in 2016. All of the internal wiring was then dismantled in a way only the Panthers could do.
Veteran coach Gerard Gallant was fired after a road game in Carolina and left alone so he had to wait for a cab to leave the arena. A coach with no NHL experience, Tom Rowe, was put in charge of running the front office and coaching the team.
The expected happened. The Panthers have arrived. The disaster happened again. And, again, they allowed people to stop paying attention.
Confession: Just writing this makes my blood boil a little, remembering stories I filed long ago. The Panthers had great hockey players like Bill Torrey guiding and supporting them – if they wanted to – until his death in 2018.
“I’m not sure anyone listens to what I say,” he once told me, after one of those wasted years. They all blend together now.
All of which explains why one had to be content to watch Friday’s celebration. And you know who deserves to be the happiest? Lifers inside this franchise. I see ushers who have been there forever, team support staff giving a smile of recognition as they pass through the hallways.
Randy Moller has been there for decades, a good and fun announcer who laughs that his last year playing was 1994-95 – the year before they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. His broadcast partner, Steve Goldstein, shouted his trademark, “Let’s go home, baby!” after Verhaeghe’s winning goal on Friday.
He reminded me the other day that after saying it one night, I mentioned that it would be a good signature line for him. He then adopted it as is. Now he closed the winner of a series with.
Ed Jovanovski, a rookie in the 1996 Magic, is now a team broadcaster, giving a history lesson on Friday as they showed highlights from that season long ago. It’s hard to explain to people what it was like in 1996 when hockey took over South Florida – or the passion in 1997 when, say, general manager Bryan Murray traded center Stu Barnes.
South Florida was furious. He traded Barnes? Why was he breaking up this team? People cared then. Maybe Friday night was finally a step back towards that.
“There was a lot of talk about not winning, about being knocked out in the first round,” Barkov said. “It was there… It’s not there anymore.”
For the first time in 26 empty years, there was something tangible to hold. Jonathan Huberdeau, a Panthers star for 10 years, was able to casually say what no Panthers player has said at this time of year, which has been a quarter century in the wait.
“Now we have to think about the second round,” he said.